Panas would not say how much Volvo spends on advertising. According to Kantar Media, Volvo spent $53 million last year, down from $59 million in 2011.
In a new TV commercial, a woman in a Mercedes-Benz crossover wearing large diamond stud earrings checks her makeup in the rearview mirror. She glances over at a Volvo XC60 that pulls up next to her. The no-makeup mom in the Volvo also looks into her rearview mirror but makes a funny face and crosses her eyes. The camera shows two children laughing in the back seat.
"Volvos aren't for everyone, and we kind of like it that way," the voiceover says.
Panos said the commercial stereotypes the typical luxury buyer as more materialistic than a Volvo owner. Volvo studied "a good number" of its customers last year and even spent time with several as they shuttled kids to school and ran daily errands, he said.
"They do not have this need to project their luxury on the outside and are less flashy about the things that they own," he said. "They care more about the family, the environment and durability. They like clean design and don't like clutter or a lot of buttons everywhere."
The campaign also is about building awareness. Volvo's sales fell 8 percent in the first four months to 19,571 units in a U.S. light-vehicle market that was up 7 percent during the same period.
"When people look in the mid-$30,000 range, they do not always think of Volvo because Volvo is a smaller company," Panas said. "We need to remind people that we are out there and are a competitive offering."
Volvo also is challenging would-be buyers of the Audi A4 to test the Volvo S60 sedan. The A4 is the car most frequently cross-shopped against the S60, Panas said.
Anyone who test drives the S60 but still buys the A4 will have their first Audi payment -- up to $400 -- covered by Volvo. The promotion runs through June.
Panas says the challenge is too new to track results, but he said he anticipates making fewer than 100 payments.
Audi once ran similar marketing campaigns, poking fun at BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Lexus.
Like Audi, Volvo has turned to billboards. It placed 15 billboards as a pilot in Los Angeles and Boston. One reads "Tired of German techno? Try some Swedish metal" and shows a vivid red S60.
Another reads: "You'd think we were German. Only better looking, faster and far less uptight."
The billboard campaign will likely expand to New York, Philadelphia and Chicago in September.